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Midweek Musings: The Positives Of An Injury-Hit Season

In which a man who misses Yakou Meite tries to find the silver lining.

Reading v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

When it comes to injuries, this has been a frustrating season. Over half of the first-team squad has spent at least one game on the sidelines. Key players Yakou Meite and John Swift have combined for just 16 starts between them. It’s more than enough to have Royals fans wondering what if? With a fuller squad, could we be seven points better off right now and challenging for automatics?

Last week was a good one for Reading FC however, picking up nine points in eight days, and therefore I refuse to have you sit through a negative article. So join me, as I perform outrageous mental gymnastics to convince you of the benefits of an injury-hit squad!

We’ve had a chance to evaluate what we have

Preston North End v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

More squad changes are coming at the end of the year. If we make it to the Premier League, it’ll be the inevitable additions of Premier League quality to give us a chance of staying up (Danny Guthrie, anyone?) If we’re back in the Championship, money will remain tight with FFP regulations, important players out of contract, and we’ll need reinforcements at left back and on the wings for a start.

For any period of squad shuffling, it’s imperative that we know what our squad actually has to offer. We don’t want to be letting players go who haven’t gotten a proper chance yet. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we don’t know what the coaches are seeing on the training field, but we don’t want to let another Michail Antonio get away from us!

Having to chop, change, and find new ways to play this year should have helped with this end-of-year evaluation.

Tom Holmes is a great example of all this. With his prospects of getting into the first team having dipped since his debut in 2018, he was probably just looking for five starts at central defence in August 2020. Come March 2021, Holmes has appeared in 28 games, though typically not in the central position. Carving out a place in the team at right back in Yiadom’s absence, Holmes has shown us something that pundits and coaches would’ve only been able to guess at previously: proficiency in a second position.

If Reading hadn’t played him consistently this year, fans might’ve barely whimpered if he left after the season. Now though, as both a commanding aerial presence in defence and the built-in replacement to Yiadom, fans would be confused to see him leave the Madejski.

This has been a theme this season. We’ve learned that Tom McIntyre can be more than just a destroyer when placed higher up in a formation, that Rinomhota can fill in at right midfield, and that if Pauno is to be believed, there’s no position on a football field in England that Alfa Semedo can’t fill. Pauno’s insistence on ignoring the preferred positions of players has occasionally been a double-edged sword this year, but we’ve certainly unearthed some hidden talents in players.

What’s more:

With first-team-ready players coming back for home stretch, this has given us good problems. Selection questions have been rife this year:

  • Does Meite get back into the squad as soon as he’s fit?
  • Does Swift get back in the squad?
  • Yiadom vs Holmes
  • McIntyre vs Moore
  • McIntyre vs Morrison
  • ...McIntyre vs Laurent? The list of comparisons really is endless with the Berkshire Maldini-Pirlo.

The club should have a much better idea of what they’ve got from far more members of their squad than they did in August 2020. Whether they act smartly in the summer is anybody’s guess, but breakthrough years for a number of players has made it harder to muck up!

Talent has had time to increase value

Reading v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

Unfortunately, the life of a Championship fan includes regular heartache. That can be the heartache of losing to a Wycombe team 20% made up of players deemed surplus to requirements at the Madejski, but it can also be in regular losses of key players to better teams. It’s been rough to watch players like Sigurdsson and Le Fondre leave Reading, but knowing that money was coming back in our direction made it easier to take.

We don’t want to welcome selling players, but realistically the club is clearly being raked by financial “fair” play requirements. If we’re in the Championship again next year, we must avoid situations like that with Omar Richards leaving on a free, and ensure that if players want to leave, the club is in a great position to get as much money as possible for them.

This is important. The Covid-19 pandemic caused a dip in the amount of money clubs were willing to part with for players. Therefore, the more value our players are adding to their resale value by getting regular minutes the better, and much of our young squad has gotten those regular minutes.

Clearly our owners aren’t going to be swayed by mediocre bids, with Swift’s transfer interest being roundly rebuffed over the summer last year. That should mean that they’re acutely aware of the new, higher value of players like Olise, Rinomhota and the academy Toms.

The former, Olise, is the most interesting case. His transfer, if it comes this summer, could already be enough to entirely evaporate our FFP concerns. That’s not to say his value hasn’t also been hugely increased by his starring role this year, as the Championship’s top teenager.

I don’t want to say goodbye to any of these players, and I hope that if this isn’t our year, we’re able to keep as many players as possible for another go at it (both of our last two promotions came after seasons in the playoffs remember). If we do have to say goodbye to some favourites though, this year has helped to ensure there’s cold hard cash on the way back!

Our best players could be fresher down the stretch

Reading v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Jonathan Brady/PA Images via Getty Images

Puscas coming back to the team has clearly been a great boost for Reading’s chances this year. He looks energised, desperate to catch up to Joao’s goal total as much as possible, and really just a lot fitter than a team around him that have played in 30 more games.

But that makes sense right? For example, if Meite has appeared in just a third of our games so far, then once he’s back and match fit, you’d expect him to have more left in his tank in May than Josh Laurent or Ovie Ejaria. Both of those players have had to take short breaks recently to handle the significant workload they’ve been handed this year.

Speaking of Laurent, he’s had to take a break recently, as has Ejaria to deal with small issues. Morrison’s injury looked muscular from the eye test, and it’s certainly easier to rack up muscle injuries when you’re fatigued. With so many injured players having played fewer games than they would expect at this point in the year though, you’d expect there to be fresh legs ready once the players are match fit. In short: the hope is that a fresher Yiadom, Puscas and Meite can really hit their stride over the final games and cause issues for some tired legs in Championship defences.

It’s important not to overstate this impact. Coming back from an injury is hard - mentally and physically. Some players come back like they never took a break, but others never truly reach their previous heights. On top of this, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused many of us to feel tired. The claustrophobic Championship schedule and undoubtedly strange experience of being some of the most mobile people in the country must have been incredibly mentally tiring for all of our players this year.

Still though, if we get Meite back for the final 10 games, and he’s then able to stay fit, he should be really hitting his stride in crunch time. We can only hope that Swift is back and hitting that same stride for the play-off final in May!